Character  &  Context

Hidden Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Class: How Classroom Settings Reproduce Social Inequality by Staging Unfair Comparison

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Alice, Marie and Frédérique have been in first grade for 2 months now. Today, their teacher tells them they are going to learn about a new letter and the girls are already impatient. The teacher writes the letter 's' on the board and turns to ask the children: "what sound does this letter make?'' Immediately a small hand goes up. It is Alice’s. Three other hands quickly follow it. Marie and Frédérique, who do not know this new letter, look at the rest of the class as hands go up. They hope they are not the only ones who do not know the sound of this new letter. The teacher asks Alice, who already knows the sounds of all the letters of the alphabet.

Alice gives the correct answer and the teacher smiles and congratulates her: "Well done!"

Meanwhile, Marie and Frédérique are wondering how Alice always knows the right answer. Why don’t they know the right answer? "Alice must just be more intelligent," Marie thinks to herself. "I’m no good at reading," Frédérique may worry.

This brief example illustrates a key aspect of school settings: the omnipresence of social comparison between students. Studies in social psychology have demonstrated that being exposed to the success of others can be threatening for one’s self-image. Seeing or imagining someone else succeeding better than oneself triggers negative thoughts and consume scarce attentional resources. However, the probability of ending up in the same situation as Marie and Frédérique, namely, experiencing upward social comparisons, is not randomly distributed in the classroom but partly determined by social class. Indeed, in addition to economic resources, belonging to a social class entails the possession of cultural dispositions (e.g., language use, ways of being and knowledge), which are more or less in tune with school standards. These inequalities in cultural capital constitute (dis)advantages on the school market as they provide a greater or lesser familiarity with academic tasks which are carried out with or less ease or difficulty. But these (dis)advantages do not told the whole story: Because classrooms are conceived to be a level playing field, having higher cultural capital also means being perceived as being smarter. The paper “Hidden Advantages and Disadvantages of Social Class: How Classroom Settings Reproduce Social Inequality by Staging Unfair Comparison” examines how forced social comparisons in the classroom can contribute to social reproduction in education.

Three studies conducted among fifth and sixth graders examined the hypothesis that schools settings may widen the achievement gap related to social class by staging unfair social comparison among students. These disruptive comparisons result from the fact that classrooms settings showcase achievement gaps between students in a way that does not acknowledge the unequal familiarity with arbitrary academic standards, forcing students to interpret these (dis)advantages as a sign of differences in intellectual ability, a construal which may interfere with disadvantaged students cognitive functioning.

In a first study we demonstrated that classroom situations that highlight differences in performance by having students raise their hands to signal completion during a difficult reading test undermine the working-class students’ achievement, whose lower familiarity with the academic language is well established. Two other studies were carried out to specify the processes involved in the observed results, namely an invisible cultural disadvantage which is construe as a sign of intellectual limitation.

Because social class is confounded with multiple factors and processes, we manipulated levels of familiarity with a new arbitrary standard (i.e., cultural capital) as a proxy of social class. We thus created a new arbitrary written code (a series of symbols corresponding to a set of letters) and operationalized two levels of familiarity with completely new arbitrary code, without the students' awareness. We then examined how being exposed to the success of other students (i.e., social comparison) might disrupt the performance of the least familiar students. A second study showed that the performance of the experimentally disadvantage students placed in an environment where students who succeed were instructed to raise their hands is significantly lower than that of disadvantage students not placed in a situation of comparison. However, A third study showed that letting the cat out of the box, that is making students aware of the (dis)advantage conferred to some of them, prevents the less familiar students from a threatening interpretation of their underachievement as a lack of ability and restores their performance.

In sum, our findings provide evidence that reproduction of inequality in education is not just the product of prior cultural differences among students: classroom situations can amplify the social-class achievement gap by staging disruptive social comparisons that harm the achievement of students who are less familiar with standards valued in education. Because Marie and Frédérique perceive the classroom as a just and equitable place, they are left with few other options but to interpret the fact that they lag behind due to the fact that they are less intelligent, a construal that gradually turns them away from learning.


Sébastien Goudeau is a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology at the Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition et l’Apprentissage (CNRS/University of Poitiers). His research focused on understanding how academic context impact academic performance and contribute to reproduction of inequality. You can find him on Twitter @Seb_Goudeau

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